The controversy over the so-called Lordship Salvation doctrine has its proximate roots in a series of sermons through the gospel of Matthew preached by John MacArthur from about 1978 to 1985.1 He published the first edition of The Gospel According to Jesus (hereafter, GAJ) in 1988. Even as he was still preaching through Matthew, the Lordship Salvation controversy began boiling up among Dispensationalists, as the footnotes in MacArthur’s volume demonstrate. Because of MacArthur’s visibility in the fundamentalist, Dispensational, and evangelical worlds and because of the ever-present concern among Reformed folk over antinomianism (e.g., the debates in the confessional Presbyterian and Reformed, hereafter P&R, world over “Sonship Theology”) this debate spilled over from fundamentalist and Dispensationalist worlds into the confessional Protestant world.
With this essay, I begin a series that interacts extensively with GAJ. In this installment, I want to set the table, frame the issues, and invite you to explore the resources attached to these essays.
Introduction and Background
The publication of GAJ prompted a thorough response from a collection of Reformed and Lutheran scholars in 1992 including Bob Strimple, Kim Riddlebarger, Mike Horton, Bob Godfrey, Rod Rosenblatt, and Paul Schaefer.2 As Mike Horton wrote in the preface to that collection, the position of the confessional Protestants relative to this debate is awkward because “both leading spokesmen on either side, Zane Hodges and John MacArthur, Jr. have offered some reason for discomfort over the terms lordship/no-lordship salvation.”3 Horton unequivocally repudiated the position advocated by Zane Hodges: “. . . no respected, mainstream Christian thinker, writer, or preacher has ever held such extreme and unusual views concerning the nature of the gospel and saving grace as Zane Hodges,” who, Horton argued, is “missing the point of the gospel itself—to make enemies friends, to reconciles sinners, to God, to break the reign of sin’s dominion, and to bring new and everlasting life to those who before were ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ (Eph 2:1).”4 He noted that both sides appeal to the Protestant Reformers in support of their positions but “there is not the slightest support for Hodges and Ryrie to claim the Reformers’ favor for their novel views.”5 This essay will contend that there is also tension between the way MacArthur articulates his position and the way the magisterial Protestants and the confessional Protestant churches addressed this issue. This is partly due to the biblicist method of both the Hodges/Ryrie and MacArthur camps. They both “pretend that that one is reading the Bible without any theological influences or biases. . . .”6 Horton made this very connection: “. . . MacArthur points risks confusion on some fundamental evangelical convictions, particularly between justification and sanctification.”7 MacArthur, Horton noted, had heard the concerns of the contributors of the volume and would make revisions to the second edition of GAJ. Remarkably, however, in none of the footnotes to GAJ is there any acknowledgement of the influence of Christ the Lord nor any interaction with it.
The history of this debate did not begin in 1978. According to Paul Schaefer, this controversy is an in-house, intra-Dispensational argument.8 Properly understood, neither the confessional Lutherans nor the confessional Reformed have a dog in this fight. Seventy years before the publication of GAJ, the Dispensationalist theologian Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871–1952) published He That Is Spiritual.9 B. B. Warfield responded to it in a journal article the next year.10 Warfield wrote,
Mr. Chafer is in the unfortunate and, one would think, uncomfortable condition of having two inconsistent systems of religion struggling together in his mind. He was bred an Evangelical, and as a minster of the Presbyterian Church, South, stands committed to Evangelicism of the purest water. But he has been long associated in his work with a coterie of “Evangelists” and “Bible Teachers,” among whom there flourishes that curious religious system . . . which the Higher Life leaders of the middle of the last century brought into vogue; and he has not been immune to its infects. These two religious systems are quite incompatible. The one is the product of the Protestant Reformation and knows not determining power in the religious life but the grace of God; the other comes from the laboratory of John Wesley, and in all its forms—modifications and mitigations alike—remains incurably Arminian, subjecting all gracious works of God to human determining. The two can unite as little as fire and water.”11
It is the contention of this essay that GAJ is in a similarly, though differently, uncomfortable position. It is by parts Dispensationalist, nomist, and Protestant. This essay will seek to untangle these knots and to suggest how GAJ would have been written, had it been written from a genuinely Reformation point of view.
Schaefer’s essay helpfully surveys the contours of the intersection of Dispensationalism and Keswick (Higher Life) theology and piety and then turns his attention to MacArthur’s place in the history of the discussion. Of course, the role of works in the Christian life and the relation of good works to justification in confessional Protestant theology goes back to the sixteenth century. I have surveyed briefly the history of some of those controversies in print and am content to point the reader there.12 Suffice it to say here, that the entire discussion would have been helped considerably had the authors on both sides of the intra-Dispensational Lordship debate done more than merely cite Reformation authorities. Neither side shows much evidence of having engaged seriously the history of the Reformation and the history of theology before the Reformation.
Dispensational Bible-Church Fundamentalism and Reformed: Two Distinct Paradigms
That the modern (post-1978) Lordship controversy is an intra-dispensational affair is easy to prove. One need only look at the footnotes in GAJ. They are overwhelmingly devoted to citing and interacting with Dispensational authors. There are twenty-four chapters and three appendices in the third (and presumably final) edition of GAJ. The footnotes in GAJ are not consecutive and I have not counted them, but I have marked, in my own copy, all the references that are to identifiably Dispensational authors or sources so that I could see easily the trends. The notes are, understandably, full of references to Zane Hodges, Charles Ryrie, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Clarence Larkin, and others; Dispensationalists all.
The discomfort of GAJ with modern confessional Reformed theology appears in both the first and third editions. In his chapter on the definition of faith as taught by the two warring Dispensational camps, Kim Riddlebarger notes that MacArthur sought to enlist Louis Berkhof into his army.13 He wrote,
Berkhof sees three elements to genuine faith: an intellectual element (notitia), which is the understanding of truth; an emotional element (assensus), which is the conviction and affirmation of truth; and a volitional element (fiducia), which is the determination of the will to obey truth. Modern popular theology tends to recognize notitia and often assensus but eliminate fiducia. Yet faith is not complete unless it is obedient.14
As Riddlebarger notes, there are significant issues with both the quotation and MacArthur’s analysis.15 For example, assensus has no reference to the emotions in the classical Reformed definition of faith. Further, fiducia means simply trust, or, as Heidelberg Catechism 21 puts it “a heartfelt trust.” Berkhof wrote of fiducia as “a personal trust in Christ as savior and Lord, including a surrender of the soul as guilty and defiled to Christ, and a reception and appropriation of Christ as the source of pardon and spiritual life.”16
As Riddlebarger says, “there is not a word in Berkhof about obedience, or repentance in his definition of faith. MacArthur’s use of the threefold model for faith, as presented here, is outside the classical Protestant understanding of that model.”17
These comments pertained to the first edition of GAJ, but they still seem relevant. On page 189, in the third edition, GAJ retains a similar mistake. The analysis of Berkhof no longer contains the claim that Berkhof included obedience in his definition of faith but in the line just above the revised quotation, MacArthur writes, “Thus faith is inseparable from obedience.” He reasserts this on the next page: “Clearly the biblical concept of faith is inseparable from obedience. ‘Believe’ is treated as if it were synonymous with ‘obey’ in John 3:36,” and yet he correctly says just a few lines down, “Obedience is the inevitable manifestation of true faith.” The confessional Protestants agree with this last sentence, but the former sentence is incoherent with the latter.
MacArthur originally cited Berkhof as he did because he assumed, or he knew a priori, that Berkhof must be saying the same thing as he, but Berkhof was not saying what MacArthur wanted to argue in the first edition of GAJ. Even after MacArthur revised the quotation it did not cause him to rethink his fundamental approach. GAJ wants to synthesize its approach with the Reformation approach, but it cannot do it. Thus, the third edition contains a fairly clear chapter on justification—one of the two substantial revisions made to the first edition—and yet there does not seem to have been any attempt to integrate that chapter with the rest of the book nor the rest of the book with that chapter.
Consider the definition of faith in Heidelberg Catechism 21:
21. What is true faith?
True faith is not only a certain knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word; but also a hearty trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.
The Reformed churches confess nothing about repentance and good works in our definition of faith. We mention knowledge, assent, and trust. This is a material issue since the subtitle of GAJ promises to tell us what authentic faith is. Is this arguably synonymous with true faith? Is MacArthur’s answer to this question the same as the Reformed? This is a question we will be exploring in this series.
The fundamental discontinuity between GAJ and the Reformation approach to the relationship of justification to sanctification and the latter to good works is in the very structure of the book. We will delve into this in more detail later, but Schaefer is right to say (about both editions in substance): “Nevertheless, MacArthur does move away from this classic Reformed conception with his constant emphasis on obedience.”18 I agree heartily with Schaefer when he writes, “All his statement placed together, however, force this dilemma: is obedience ‘a manifestation’ and a ‘by-product’ of a resting in and reliance on Christ as Lord and Savior, or, as he seems to say at some points, is it actually a constituent part of the definition of faith?”19
Had a classically Reformed theologian written this book, it would look more like the book of Romans (which is in three parts: guilt, grace, and gratitude) and the Heidelberg Catechism, and less GAJ.20 At the beginning of Part 1 of GAJ, MacArthur asks, “Today’s Gospel: Good News or Bad?” This is a fair question, but we might ask the same of MacArthur and GAJ. What is the gospel? Is it good news or bad? As I re-read GAJ for this series, I find myself asking what, for MacArthur, is good about the good news? What exactly is the gospel? For the most part, MacArthur’s answer to that question is frustratingly vague or confusing.
By contrast, the very first thing the catechism does is to give comfort and assurance to the believer:
1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me, that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.
The Reformation had just a few decades before the publication of the Catechism recovered the doctrines of justification by divine favor alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide). The medieval church had deprived Christians of the comfort of the gospel and the assurance of faith by placing them, were it possible, under the law, under what the Reformed call a covenant of works. They were given grace, but they had to do their part in order finally to be justified. One could ordinarily never be assured, under the medieval system, that he was ever, in this life, right with God. Thus, one could never, ordinarily, be at peace or have any comfort or assurance. So, the Reformed were at pains to say to believers: “God accepts you freely for Christ’s sake. You are friends with God.”
The confessional Protestants taught the inevitability and necessity of good works as fruit and evidence of justification and salvation. Rome, of course, was dissatisfied with that and condemned the Protestants in Session 6 of the Council of Trent (1547) for saying that good works are nothing but fruit and evidence of our justification. Rome, however, made our obedience and good works constituent of our faith in justification. Paul Schaefer has raised this very same concern about MacArthur’s definition of faith. Are repentance and good works the fruit of true faith for MacArthur or do they make (form) faith and make it true? After all these years, that is still an open question that we must explore in this series.
Another way that the Protestants sought to comfort and assure Christians was to distinguish between law and gospel. GAJ would have been vastly improved had MacArthur clearly, unambiguously, and consistently distinguished law and gospel from the outset. This will be discussed more fully in part two of this series. I submit that the relative absence of these categories is yet another piece of evidence that MacArthur writes from another paradigm, one in which the Reformation distinction between law and gospel is absent or alien.21 As we will see in our survey, MacArthur’s account of the young man’s conversation with Jesus (Matt 19) is rather different from Luther’s or Calvin’s and the chief reason is that they had a conceptual tool in their toolbox that MacArthur does not: the distinction between the law as that word of God’s that says, “do this and live” (Lev 18:5; Luke 10:28) and the gospel word that says, “Christ has done for you.”
As I re-read GAJ, especially as I read MacArthur’s writing about the relation of repentance and faith, I find myself asking, what does he make of the 1717 Auchterarder Creed? “It is not sound and orthodox to teach that we must forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ.” The candidate for ministry could not affirm that and neither could the General Assembly, which condemned it, but the Auchterarder Presbytery was correct. They were standing for the Reformation message over against the Baxter-influenced nomism that had taken much of the Scots church captive by the early eighteenth century.22 Where is GAJ relative to the Marrow of Modern Divinity and the Marrow Men such as Thomas Boston and the Erskines? The index shows no reference to the Marrow Controversy and yet, in it, the Reformed confronted these very questions and they are entirely material to the Lordship controversy.
1. John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus: What Is Authentic Faith?. Revised and Expanded Anniversary Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 9.
2. Michael Horton, ed., Christ the Lord: The Reformation and Lordship Salvation (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1992).
3. Mike Horton, “Preface,” Christ the Lord, 11. It is interesting that MacArthur himself says that he dislikes the nomenclature of “Lordship Salvation” (GAJ, 44, n.20).
4. Ibid., 11.
6. Ibid., 11.
7. Ibid., 12.
8. Paul Schaefer, “An American Tale,” in Horton, ed., Christ the Lord, 149.
9. Lewis Sperry Chafer, He That Is Spiritual (Findlay, Ohio: Dunham Pub, 1918).
10. B. B. Warfield, Review of He That Is Spiritual appeared in the Princeton Theological Review 17 (1919): 322–27. It is reprinted as an appendix to Christ the Lord.
11. Warfield, Review, 322; Christ the Lord, 211–212.
12. R. Scott Clark, “How We Got Here: The Roots of the Current Controversy Over Justification” in R. Scott Clark, ed. Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry: Essays By the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), 12–19.
13. Kim Riddlebarger, “What Is Faith?” in Horton, Christ the Lord, 94.
14. GAJ, 1st ed. quoted by Riddlebarger, ibid, 94.
15. In fairness to MacArthur, there are peculiarities in Berkhof’s definition (pp. 503–05). E.g., there is nothing about emotion inherent in the idea of assent. I have not seen Reformed orthodox writers characterizing assensus in terms of emotion. Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), s.v., “assensus” defines assensus as “assent, spiritual acknowledgment, or agreement; a necessary component of fides.” Further, Muller defines simply and correctly as trust. In Reformed orthodoxy it is the “crown of faith.” Certainly, Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 21 leads us in this direction rather than in the paths suggested by some of Berkhof’s language.
16. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 504–06:
b. An emotional element (assensus). Barth calls attention to the fact that the time when man accepts Christ by faith is the existential moment of his life, in which he ceases to consider the object of faith in a detached and disinterested way, and begins to feel a lively interest in it. It is not necessary to adopt Barth’s peculiar construction of the doctrine of faith, to admit the truth of what he says on this point. When one embraces Christ by faith, he has a deep conviction of the truth and reality of the object of faith, feels that it meets an important need in his life, and is conscious of an absorbing interest in it—and this is assent. It is very difficult to distinguish this assent from the knowledge of faith just described, because, as we have seen, it is exactly the distinguishing characteristic of the knowledge of saving faith, that it carries with it a conviction of the truth and reality of its object. Hence some theologians have shown an inclination to limit the knowledge of faith to a mere taking cognizance of the object of faith; but (1) this is contrary to experience, for in true faith there is no knowledge that does not include a hearty conviction of the truth and reality of its object and an interest in it; and (2) this would make the knowledge in saving faith identical with that which is found in a purely historical faith, while the difference between historical and saving faith lies in part exactly at this point. Because it is so difficult to make a clear distinction, some theologians prefer to speak of only two elements in saving faith, namely, knowledge and personal trust. These are the two elements mentioned in the Heidelberg Catechism when it says that true faith “is not only a certain knowledge whereby I hold for true all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also a hearty trust which the Holy Ghost works in me by the gospel.”1 It probably deserves preference to regard knowledge and assent simply as two aspects of the same element in faith. Knowledge may then be regarded as its more passive and receptive side, and assent as its more active and transitive side.
c. A volitional element (fiducia). This is the crowning element of faith. Faith is not merely a matter of the intellect, nor of the intellect and the emotions combined; it is also a matter of the will, determining the direction of the soul, an act of the soul going out towards its object and appropriating this. Without this activity the object of faith, which the sinner recognizes as true and real and entirely applicable to his present needs, remains outside of him. And in saving faith it is a matter of life and death that the object be appropriated. This third element consists in a personal trust in Christ as Saviour and Lord, including a surrender of the soul as guilty and defiled to Christ, and a reception and appropriation of Christ as the source of pardon and of spiritual life. Taking all these elements in consideration, it is quite evident that the seat of faith cannot be placed in the intellect, nor in the feelings, nor in the will exclusively, but only in the heart, the central organ of man’s spiritual being, out of which are the issues of life. In answer to the question whether this fiducia (trust) necessarily includes an element of personal assurance, it may be said, in opposition to the Roman Catholics and Arminians, that this is undoubtedly the case. It naturally carries with it a certain feeling of safety and security, of gratitude and joy. Faith, which is in itself certainty, tends to awaken a sense of security and a feeling of assurance in the soul. In the majority of cases this is at first more implicit and hardly penetrates into the sphere of conscious thought; it is something vaguely felt rather than clearly perceived. But in the measure in which faith grows and the activities of faith increase, the consciousness of the security and safety which it brings also becomes greater. Even what theologians generally call “refuge-seeking trust” (toevluchtnemend vertrouwen) conveys to the soul a certain measure of security. This is quite different from the position of Barth, who stresses the fact that faith is a constantly repeated act, is ever anew a leap of despair and a leap in the dark, and never becomes a continuous possession of man; and who therefore rules out the possibility of any subjective assurance of faith.
17. Riddlebarger, ibid., 94.
18. Schaefer, “A Battle Royal,” in Christ The Lord, 183.
19. Schaefer, ibid., 183–84.
20. In his lecture responding to some of my criticisms of GAJ Phil Johnson complains about my frequent references to what he calls “the Heidelberg Confession.” This might be the same sort of Freudian slip as when he referred to John MacArthur as “God,” but his misstatement and his irritation with the frequent use of the Heidelberg are revealing. To clarify, a catechism is a book of questions and answers. A confession is a document with a series of articles or declarations. In the Reformed churches we regard the Scriptures as the primary and final authority for the Christian faith and life. This is what we confess in, e.g., Belgic Confession art. 7. The Catechism, Confession, and the Canons of Dort (rulings against the Remonstrants or Arminians) are official, ecclesiastical interpretations of God’s Word. They are subsidiary but they are authoritative statements of what the Reformed understand God’s Word to teach. They have more authority than, e.g., a systematic theology such as Berkhof’s or Horton’s. Those are valuable but they are not ecclesiastical. Johnson’s evidence impatience with the Reformed use of ecclesiastical documents reveals again that we are in two different worlds, he in the Bible church world and I in the confessional Reformed world, operating within two distinct paradigms.
21. See the resources on the distinction between law and gospel listed below. The reader may want to begin with R. Scott Clark, “Letter and Spirit: Law and Gospel in Reformed Preaching,” in R. Scott Clark, ed. Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2006), 331–63. Also available on iTunes. This essay was meant to be an introduction to the topic. More than one former student of the Lordship Salvation model has commented that he has found this essay helpful.
22. For more on this see Sinclair Ferguson’s wonderful work, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016). Listen also the Heidelcast series on Nomism and Antinomianism.
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- Mike Abendroth, My Pilgrimage From “Lordship” to Law/Gospel (part 1)
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- Mike Abendroth, My Pilgrimage From “Lordship” to Law/Gospel (part 3): Assurance
- Heidelcast 181: As It Was In The Days Of Noah (24)—We Are Pilgrims Under Christ’s Lordship
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- A Faithful Elder Stands Up For The Sheep
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- Antinomianism Is A Serious Error And So Is Nomism
- Ursinus Against The Antinomians, Libertines, And Similar Fanatics Who Deny That The Decalogue Is For Teaching In The Christian Church (Objection 1)
- Resources on the Law/Gospel Distinction
- Calvin On Justification Without The Aid Of Love Or Works
- Heidelcast 95: Reformation Happens
- W. Robert Godfrey, “Faith Formed By Love or Faith Alone?” in Clark, ed. Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.
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